Editor's Notebook: Paired photos in ‘Duality’ are a singularly enjoyable art exhibit

Juxtapositions in an art exhibition are often serendipitous or happenstance: You see works that connect in unexpected, unintended ways — but connections do happen.

Then there is “Duality” at Columbia Center for the Arts, which is all about intended juxtapositions: Paired or combined works that purposefully blend visions or place on equal footing perspectives that are separate yet aligned.

Here, I want to bring attention to the largest element in “Duality,” the paired photographs of Randy Olson and Melissa Farlow. Call them cousin photos, as they are taken in disparate locations that bring out striking comparisons, even ubiquity, across nature and across cultures.

“One, but we are not the same/carry each other, carry each other,” goes the U2 song, words that come to mind here.

In these photos see similarities in out-stretched hands in “Friends,” in a square in Sudan, and “Robot Caregiver,” from Japan. The links can be visual, or emotional, or both, and bear drama, discomfort and humor. When do we see Japan and Sudan associated? Humanity does, essentially.

The photos will make you laugh, pairs such as “Cowgirl” in Utah placed next to a young “Sheriff” wannabe from Prineville. Then there is the dynamic similarity of spike-haired figures: An Australian amusement park sign and a Long Beach, Calif., punk rocker, both labeled “Blue Hair.”

So will Austrian tourists in Ethiopia, garbed in animal skins, and “Wild Ones” — folklorists in Schlercherlaufen, Austria, dressed in fantastic animal skin costumes.

But look at “Casualty of War” next to “Camel Beauty Contest,” and you nearly gasp at what is a painful confluence of images. The phrases themselves are a jarring mix, and that is part of the point. A brutal set of truths, finely depicted.

“Patriot” and “Immigrants” present starkly, nakedly, different presentations of the American flag.

“Disco Dancers” in Kamchatka, Russia, and “Sudan Friends” (favorite shooting locations for Farlow and Olson) are united by beams of light from above.

Olson’s 29 National Geographic Magazine projects have taken him to many countries in Africa, Arctic, Europe, the South Pacific and Middle East. National Geographic published a book of his work in their “Masters of Photography” series in January 2011.

Farlow has worked extensively in the American West for National Geographic, driving 20,000 miles for a magazine story and book on public lands and, more recently, documenting mustang herds. Another driving trip took her through South America to chronicle life along the Pan American. Other National Geographic Magazine stories of hers feature varied subjects — culture and climate change in the Alps and West Virginia’s mountaintop removal mining.

What unites cultures on opposite parts of the planet? That is the central question Farlow and Olson answer with their images. Salmon in the Ozernaya River, Kamchatka, are a humorous yet poignant counterpoint to a mermaid with an oddly similar salmon-esque tail in an Australian aquarium show.

A sudden moment of nature — lightning hitting the ground in Australia — somehow mirrors a moment of orchestrated mixology in a China nightclub: The bolt of lighting eerily resembles the shape of a fiery drink called “Flaming Dragon.”

More examples await. They must be seen to fully grasp, and some are less clear correlations than others. At least one pair I stood and looked at for nearly 10 minutes and could not see what connects them; but that is only my mind, one set of eyes.

The photos are a blend of fun and wonder, and worth checking out before “Duality” closes.

“Duality” will remain at the enter through Sept. 29; hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. See B3 for more on “Duality,” our Pick of the Week.

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